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Image credit: USA Today Sports

Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.

Seattle Mariners PECOTA Projections:
Record: 82-80
Runs Scored: 780
Runs Allowed: 769
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .262/.324/.422 (.263)
Total WARP: 31.1 (10.6 pitching, 20.5 non-pitching)

Patrick Dubuque: Eighty-two wins! That isn’t that bad. So why is it that the Mariners feel like the baseball equivalent of Blue Oyster Cult playing their hits at the local casino?

Kate Preusser: Maybe if Blue Oyster Cult charged $20 million per umlaut? Or maybe it’s a Blue Oyster Cult cover band with their hit “Actually One Should Cultivate a Healthy Respect for the Reaper.” The Mariners have around 30 percent of their total payroll committed to two players whose combined ages qualify for Medicare. Eighty-two wins isn’t bad for a team on the upswing, and it isn’t bad for a team that doesn’t have to share a division with the Houston Manticores, but for the 2018 Mariners, 82 wins is quite bad indeed.

The Mariners have tried drafting their way out of their playoff drought, and failed; they’ve tried spending their way out of it, and failed; now they’re going for the time-honored American approach of trying nothing, much to the despair of their fan base and baseball writers.

Dubuque: At least they’re not the only team going through the proverbial motions. It’s kind of crazy how quiet the baseball world has been about how quiet Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been, though. Sure, the farm system is empty, but two major trades all offseason, and they were both basically plugs to fill holes created by players departing in free agency. Will the Mariners be better off with Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy manning their positions than they were with Yonder Alonso and Jarrod Dyson?

Preusser: I’m surprised by how little attention, relatively speaking, the Gordon move has garnered. Maybe because it was the shorter side of the fire-sale triangle that went on in Miami, or maybe because the rise of the super-utility player has dulled the novelty of a position player making such a major switch, even a veteran, Gold Glove-caliber player like Gordon? Gordon’s bat, baserunning, and overall health make him a pretty clear upgrade provided he can play an average center field; if he can, I think the lines between infielder and outfielder get a little blurrier, which will be an interesting trend to track.

Healy is a seemingly odd choice for a team that prizes athleticism and controlling the strike zone, especially in a year flush with first basemen on the cheap, although four of those first basemen were ex-Mariners and Dipoto is no man to stand in the same slow-moving river twice. The good news is it’s a low, low bar to clear for Healy to be an improvement on basically any Mariners first baseman in the past decade. Like, dachshund races low.

As for pitching, my sense is that ownership has capped the amount Dipoto was able to spend, putting free agent pitchers even in the Alex Cobb/Lance Lynn/Tyler Chatwood tier out of reach, but there’s been a lot of depth signing for cheap. If you want to put a positive spin on it, you could call it a radical show of faith in Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, and the rest of the depth. Maybe Dipoto read about BHAGs on a plane ride or something. But why not take a flier on, say, Jaime Garcia or Trevor Cahill?

Dubuque: In that sense, the Mariners really do feel like a horror movie sequel. Why would the kids go back to the lake? The team’s rotation was decimated by injuries last season: Thirteen pitchers started games, and not only did none of them qualify for the ERA title, Ariel Miranda’s 160 innings led the team by nearly 30. With its upper-minors starting depth dealt away or cut (hi, Zach Lee!), and the team was leaning on flotsam like Andrew Albers and Christian Bergman all season long. They don’t even have Albers back this year—he fled the country to Japan—and even with legitimate pitchers sitting unsigned, the team appears to be content heading into the season with one of the most threadbare rotations in team history. I get that the team isn’t crazy about adding long-term contracts at this point in the competition cycle, but there has to be some middle ground between Jake Arrieta and Chase DeJong.

Preusser: Trapped in an infinite loop of horror movie sequels: the Mariners fan story. Maybe the Mariners are saving up to buy some pitching in next year’s free agent class, although if you believe that, you can be the one to go check out that spooky noise in the basement. But it’s especially baffling considering any help the Mariners have for starting pitching is so low-level it’s subterranean. They believe in guys they’ve brought in like DeJong, Robert Whalen, and Max Povse, and maybe if one of them takes a step forward they get a reliable back-end starter, but the front-line help just isn’t there.

The Mariners seem to be going with a strategy of building a DeathPen to back up their non-elite starting pitching, which makes sense, since it’s the one area of the farm where they have some MLB-close depth. But fans don’t get excited about bullpen additions, and the team’s unwillingness to move on a sluggish free agent pitching market has cost them goodwill with an already beaten-down fan base. [A cannon booms, LONGEST PLAYOFF DROUGHT IN PRO SPORTS appears glimmering in the night sky.]

Dubuque: So it seems that the team can’t buy its way into contending, or won’t. Dipoto gave a press conference a few weeks ago claiming it was the latter, that they like the guys they have, and that they couldn’t possibly use a Lance Lynn in their rotation, but once again it seems difficult to strip away What is Dipoto from What is His Owner, just as it was during his time with the Angels.

So let’s say this season goes poorly. The team suffers a few key injuries, help never arrives, and the veterans gut their way to a 75-win season. What would you do in their situation, and what do you think the team will do? Do they tear it down? Try to re-sign Nelson Cruz and make another go? And if it’s the former, does Dipoto deserve to be in charge of the rebuild, or is a four-year plan too long for someone who’s already had three?

Preusser: Steamer, lowest of all the projections systems on the Mariners, has them winning 79 games, but it takes some real mental gymnastics for me to get significantly below that. Even the dismal 2015 team won 76 games, and this team has a better lineup, defense, and bullpen than that team. If this team is beset by the same Edward Gorey-style injury rash that plagued them last year (M is for Mitch Haniger, who fractured both his femurs; P is for James Paxton, set upon by angry lemurs), I could see the front office burning some sage and then reloading for another shot. If they just generally underachieve, especially with the guys they’ve endeavored to bring into the organization—if Marco Gonzales doesn’t take the step forward they think he will, if Ben Gamel is closer to his second-half self than his first-half self—that’s a harder decision, but I do think Dipoto has earned the opportunity to make that decision and oversee its effects.

There are good signs in the organization toward player development; the Mariners’ farm system might not be the most talent-rich in baseball, but it’s full of guys who are working up to their ceilings, and they’ve been able to pull some relief talent to use or flip for other pieces. Nick Vincent is someone who gets overlooked a lot as one of Dipoto’s acquisitions, as he basically gave the Padres a fistful of Val-Pak coupons for someone who has become one of the better setup men in baseball. But I have trouble letting things go, as the stack of grade school yearbooks under my bed can attest. What do you think would happen in this nightmare scenario?

Dubuque: I don’t know if I’m a real imaginative person, but it’s not hard for me to conceive of disaster. Look at the Giants last year; the great thing about baseball is that sometimes it all magically comes together, but the opposite is equally true. I don’t think it’s likely, per se, but it’s not the deepest roster around.

When it comes to the farm system, I think ceilings are part of the problem. The M’s have purged a whole team full of underachievers, and while those guys may never have figured it out with the M’s, it hurts to see names like Luiz Gohara and Alex Jackson and Tyler O’Neill grace foreign prospect lists, with little to show for it. Meanwhile, they enjoy a surfeit of Rumbelows, a clubhouse full of heart and grit, and not a single out-pitch between them. The system is unquestionably one of the worst in baseball, especially in terms of high-impact talent.

Dipoto did what he could to make the roster he inherited a playoff-caliber team, and the trades he made were with that aim. It just didn’t work. Lost in the failure is that the team has also been incredibly unlucky, between the knee injury to Kyle Lewis, the loss of Drew Smyly, the bid for Shohei Ohtani, everything. But it’s just hard to see this team competitive in 2019, having used up the four years of Cruz, the better half of Robinson Cano’s contract, and the last ounce of Felix Hernandez’s life essence. It was hard to imagine them reloading for this year; doing it again would be madness to me. There are no parts left, no deals to be made.

Preusser: It’s true, there is basically nothing they can do without breaking the seal on some of the Dipoto draftees, and so far he’s shown an unwillingness to part with anyone from the recent draft class with the exception of someone like David Banuelos, sacrificed in the mad pursuit for Ohtani, or JP Sears, traded for the aforementioned Nick Rumbelow. It’s easy to wave away “heart and grit,” but there’s a very specific kind of player they’re targeting, a perfect summation of which is the move to trade beefy Canadian meathead Tyler O’Neill for diminutive, wine-swilling, cerebral Marco Gonzales. The Mariners are betting heavily on their ability to develop players who fit their system, but unless they’re MLB-close, we won’t see any fruits of that for years yet.

Dubuque: If they are going to make the jump from .500 to Wild Card contender (not a large one, and yet also, a gaping chasm), it’ll have to be because of someone on the team right now. Which player do you think is most likely to exceed his PECOTA projections and get the M’s to that vaunted play-in game?

Preusser: Probably the most obvious is Mike Zunino, at 1.7 WARP, since he was worth almost double that in limited action last year. And I don’t necessarily see that value increase coming from a 30-home run season; Zunino’s improved approach at the plate has him collecting singles, doubles, and walks. He’ll still strike out a fair amount, but his offensive profile is much more balanced now. Similarly, Cruz’s projected 2.8 WARP is a full win lower than his poorest season in Seattle to date. PECOTA has him still mashing 36 homers but losing 20 points off his average; I think Cruz is a better pure hitter than that, although now he has a spring training injury issue with which to deal.

The flip side of this, of course, is with the depth as thin as it is, one player tanking could douse the playoff hopes of the entire team. Where do you think the hidden mine is?

Dubuque: Isn’t it also Zunino? After bidding farewell to Carlos Ruiz, the two men competing for backup duty are both 28 years old and have combined for fewer than 28 career major-league plate appearances. And while David Freitas, the newcomer, has shown flashes of hitting and framing in Triple-A (if not, to maintain a theme, tools), he was also a waiver claim from the Braves. The Mariners desperately need Zunino to play at this 2017 second-half level for all of 2018, and while it’s not difficult to imagine a repeat, it’s also not difficult to imagine several of the other half-seasons leading up to the last one. There’s really just no good way to know what you’re going to get.

And maybe that’s why Zunino is so interesting for this team: on a roster full of predictable, projectible veterans, there are only a few guys like Zunino and Haniger who can really step forward and bail out this franchise.

Preusser: Ah yes. Qui acceperint Zunino, Zunino peribunt. And before him Jeff Clement, and the scores of all the others whose bones line the Mariners’ prospect graveyard. Maybe the new approach to player development will help break the Mariners out of their baseball Groundhog Day and they’ll be able to get the good versions of players like Zunino, Haniger, and Gamel, as well as their recent draftees, instead of the Grocery Outlet version of Zunino from his first three years. Something has to change for this franchise, if only for entropy-based reasons. Unfortunately, that thing might be becoming collateral damage as the Astros and Angels slug it out like a Japanese monster movie atop the division.

Dubuque: To 81 wins.

Preusser: My mama taught me to always dream big. To 85 wins.

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